It only takes a bite or two to realize it when the chef's having fun back there, and at Primo at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes, the Orlando outpost of Melissa Kelly's Maine farm-to-table resto, that chef is Mariano Vegel.
Vegel grew up in the culinary industry in Argentina, and after dropping out of law school, he followed in his family's footsteps and graduated with a culinary arts degree from Instituto Argentino de Gastronomia in 2006. His first job out of school was at a Marriott in Buenos Aires, and in October of that year, he made his way to the JW Marriott Grande Lakes and worked his way up through the casual dining restaurant, Citron, to eventually be appointed chef de cuisine at Primo, just six years later.
For Vegel, food is memory, especially when it comes to developing new additions for the Primo menu. "I incorporate a lot of my Spanish and Italian roots into my cooking. For example, whenever I make a bagna cauda, the aroma takes me back to a family table with 30 people dipping raw vegetables in hot butter. My first bite into a tortilla española always makes me feel like a kid again," he says. Connecting with his family in Argentina keeps his sense memories flowing, too. "We talk about smells and flavors from my mom's kitchen and then try to replicate them on my own. I figure, if this food made me so happy for so long, it should have a similar effect on the people that come to eat at Primo."
As a boy, Vegel worked in his grandfather's pizzeria rolling and cutting pasta. Now, Primo is one of the growing number of places in town where all the pasta is made from scratch in house. Taste some of Vegel's childhood in the squid ink frutti di mare – the black pasta is dotted with calamari rings, picked crab, Florida rock shrimp and tasso ham. Combining ultra-high-quality ingredients and comforting dishes is part of Vegel's philosophy on food. "Simple and down-to-earth food is what we're all about; it should be food that everyone understands and can relate to. We follow a simple formula here: Fresh ingredients plus passionate execution equals new memories for our guests."
Whatever the dish, Vegel's global influence and excitement in the kitchen is as vibrant as the dishes he puts out from the Primo kitchen. He remarks, "I hope to keep learning, to open eyes through food, and to have fun in the kitchen until my last day."